Coming to Terms With Ecoanxiety

Growing an awareness of climate change.

Posted Jan 09, 2018

Pixaby, used with permission
Source: Pixaby, used with permission

Our dependence on fossil fuels is a form of addiction George W. Bush claimed in his State of the Union Speech back in 2006. Yet despite our destructive consumption of oil the human family seems unable to orchestrate an effective intervention.

The International Psychoanalytical Association recognizes climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” followed close behind by nuclear war. Everything you wanted to know about global warming but were afraid to ask is here.

Mental health clinician Susan Kassouf argues that “most humanitarian disasters and their attendant human trauma today stem in no small part from climate change” and cites Syria’s “record droughts” and “decimated wheat harvests” as important factors leading to that country’s Civil War and refugee crisis. Kassouf describes our dependence on fossil fuels as “an ego-syntonic addiction,” meaning our oil consumption is in harmony with our sense of nationhood or self-image as a nation. Despite blatant signs of environmental destruction such as the Bayou Corne Sinkhole, “we stab desperately,” she says, “looking for one still usable vein.” 

We emotionally disassociate from the suffering we inflict on the environment, meaning we separate psychic cluster of feelings related to global warming and create an amnesia barrier in order to alleviate mental distress. To disassociate is to split consciousness. 

In her ambitious collection of interviews America on the Couch, depth journalist Pythia Peay elaborates how, despite all the American emphasis on hearth and home, we have lost an emotional connection to our planetary home. In a section devoted to “America’s Vanishing Environment,” Bonnie Bright, founder of Depth Psychology Alliance and part of the community concerned about climate change, considers how our dissociation arises from a blind faith in the power of the free market which puts “the whole planet in a Holocaust oven.” Our psychological awareness has failed to keep up with industrial development. 

Data collected by Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes supports the idea that denial keeps climate change off the radar of consciousness. Stoknes examines polls from 1989 to the near present—all which show that the level of public concern over climate change in 39 Western countries decreased the more scientific evidence that was produced to support the phenomenon. With higher levels of certainty and urgency in the science, people tend to become less concerned. One component of denial is what Stoknes calls “distance,” imagining that the effects of climate change are removed from us in time and space. As he puts it, “when climate models talk of 2050 or 2100, it seems like eons from now.” 

What other psychological factors inform our slow response to the realities of climate change? According to Kassouf, part of our struggle resides in our inability to conceptualize how we humans even exist in relation to our environment. Are we separate from it? At one with it? Master of it? Our uncertainty about how to define this relationship between people and what psychoanalyst Harold Searles calls “the nonhuman environment” is part of what gets in the way of addressing climate change effectively.

Kassouf, herself, describes humankind in relation to the natural environment in terms of an “’embeddedness’…with all its infantile and mortal connotations of womb, cradle and grave.” Embeddedness as distinct from “relatedness” speaks to how humans are acutely dependent on the natural environment, intensely entwined with it on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

It’s easy to feel vulnerable in the face of super floods, rising tides, droughts and tsunamis. There is immense pain involved in recognizing the realities of global warming. Beneath our disassociation and denial of changing climate is fear, perhaps guilt for our own carbon footprint, even a sense of apocalyptic dread. Of key importance: our recognition of global warming entails acknowledging change in the power dynamics between us humans and the natural world beyond us, it signals a loss of our sense of our omnipotence over it. In other words, if we recognize the ecological threats facing us, we must also recognize how we are unable to control and dominate Mother Nature (Naomi Klein cited in Kassouf).

According to psychotherapists Linda Buzzell and Sarah Anne Edwards, people go through certain stages as they wake up to “ecoanxiety” and the fact of our environmental situation. Ecoanxiety is a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis. It’s an understandable reaction to ones growing awareness of climate change and the global problems that result from damage to the ecosystem. While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not include “ecoanxiety” as a specific diagnosis some people are expressing high levels of stress over climate change with symptoms including panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite, and insomnia.  

Kassouf suggests we explore how we interact with the earth as a new object relation. Ecotherapy is one treatment that uses this approach. It prompts the client to investigate his or her emotional energy directed toward aspects of the natural environment. This may involve recalling memories from childhood of being in nature, as well as taking breaks from technology in the present to engage activities like gardening, forest bathing, or spearheading a community project for recycling. How did one’s parents view the natural environment and acts of sustainability, such as composting? Was getting in the car and tanking up the gas second nature? What kind of transgenerational habits of thought can be identified?

Ecotherapy also addresses the question of how individual actions regarding the environment can make a difference and even have ripple effects in the social realm, influencing in the values, attitudes, and behaviors of other people. These techniques of therapy engage the relationship between a person’s wellbeing and destructiveness and also that of the planet. Finally, ecotherapy is informed by the notion that both the individual and the environment are endowed with capacities of resilience.

Scientist and Jungian analyst Stephen J. Foster works in environmental human health, evaluating and cleaning Superfund sites, contaminated areas requiring a long-term response to combat hazardous pollution. Foster describes earthly landscapes of toxic waste devoid of all life, barren as the moon. Yet he also observes the ironic beauty of some Superfund sites. Because these toxic terrains have been long cordoned-off from human activity—nature has come back. He recalls one of the biggest blackberry bushes he’s ever seen was at a Superfund site: “all the birds and mammals had moved back in.” Some of these locations have subsequently been made into nature preserves and areas for viewing wildlife.

The destiny of the human species is deeply embedded with that of the environment. It is vitally important we find new ways of preserving and protecting it, the shared household of the earth.

References

Kassouf, Susan. (2017).  Psychoanalysis and Climate Change: Revisiting Searles’ The Nonhuman Environment, Rediscovering Freud’s Phylogenetic Fantasy, and Imagining a Future.  American Imago, Volume 74, Number 2, pp. 141-171.

Peay, Pythia. (2015). America On the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. New York, NY: Lantern Books.